Every few years, it seems that the game industry splits off another branch. First, there was the classic PC versus console battle, which seems to revive every few years. A few years back, handheld gaming became a much bigger deal, moving beyond the toy-like Gameboy to the diverse market for Nintendo DS and PSP titles. Several years ago, MMOs seemed to be everywhere, and looked to possibly squeeze the air out of traditional single-player games. Two years ago, mobile games seemed to be pulling developers away from blockbuster title creation.
All of these now seem to be branches of the same tree. A new conflict is looming: the perceived battle between social network gaming and traditional gaming. We’ll talk about the controversy brewing around social network games, plus take a look at a couple of game postmortems. We’ll also revisit Civilization, discussing Sid Meier’s keynote, a preview of Civilization V and how the new Civ5 engine will make use of all the CPU cores we can have in modern PCs.
The New Platform on the Block
Even if you don’t play any of the seemingly countless games on Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen references to games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. Farmville is now up to 32 million daily users--a number that’s more than double World of Warcraft’s total subscriber list. Further, companies like Playdom, Zynga, Playfish, and others are attracting substantial investment capital in a new gold rush to find the next big moneymaking venture on the Internet.
Many of the press releases that emerged during GDC revolved around social media games. Alex St. John, one of the co-creators of DirectX, is now at social network Hi5 and is pushing game development. In fact, he’s proclaiming that Hi5 is much friendlier to game development than Facebook, and has publicly “declared war” on Facebook. So, not only do we have conflict between social media gaming and the rest of the industry, but the social media networks are already competing for gamer eyeballs. MySpace announced its intent to become a leading social gaming platform, as well.
During the two days preceding the main part of GDC, which consist of tutorial sessions and vertical segment summits, I attended a session at the Social Gaming Summit, which drew four gaming industry veterans, who talked about why they’ve moved to social network gaming.
Industry Veterans Move to Facebook Games
One fascinating session was a panel in which developers with long standing in the game business discussed their move to socially-networked games. On the panel was Brian Reynolds, the lead designer for Civilization II who went on to found Big Huge Games, which developed the seminal RTS Rise of Nations. Also sitting in was Steve Meretzky, probably responsible for some of the funniest adventure games ever to grace the small screen. Rounding out the panel was Brenda Braithewaite and Noah Falstein, both involved with interactive entertainment since the early days of arcade and PC gaming.
Falstein noted the current controversy in the industry, asking the question: “Are social network games really games, or just software Skinner boxes?”
That echoed the feeling I encountered among a large number of game developers at the GDC. Falstein went on to point out that “...old school game designers have no problems with social network games.”
Brenda Braithwaite weighed in, noting that each successive new evolutionary branch of games creates the interplay of “this isn’t a game” versus “this is the cool new game.”
The undertone to all of this, however, was that these old school developers are uncomfortable with the current process of large-scale, large-team game development. Even relatively small teams now approach 100 people during the peak of game crunch, and standard budgets of $10 million or more isn’t uncommon. Plus, today’s big budget titles often have multi-year development cycles. All the members of the panel noted how they much prefer shorter cycles and smaller teams, which is what they get at companies like Zynga or Playfish.
On the other hand, Reynolds sounded almost wistful, when he pointed out that “being the lead game designer at Zynga is actually not a large role. What’s really driving the heart of development is the social interaction, not game design.”
Near the close of the session, Falstein wrapped up by noting that social networking games would most likely stay light and simple, in order to appeal to the huge audiences they currently attract. But production values would improve, much as they have in the casual game side of the business.
Later in the week, I was at a dinner that included programmers, designers, teachers, and producers all involved in the mainstream game business. The level of disdain for social media games was pretty high, and the general consensus seemed to be that social media games were, at best, highly subscribed casual games, and at worst, and endless reward loop treadmill which created obsessive-compulsive behavior among their users. There hasn’t been such a clear dichotomy of feeling in the industry in over a decade.